What Is The Difference Between Arthritis and Bursitis?

Arthritis and bursitis are different conditions that have similar characteristics. Arthritis includes a group of chronic diseases, with osteoarthritis (OA) and rheumatoid arthritis (RA) being the most common. Bursitis is a temporary condition that's usually caused by overuse, injury, or infection. Both involve joint inflammation, pain, and discomfort.

Man gripping stairwell handle and hip

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What Is Bursitis?

Bursitis is inflammation of the bursae, which are fluid-filled sacs near the joints. The bursae cushion bones, tendons, and muscles to reduce joint friction and inflammation. They can become inflamed from overuse, prolonged postures, or inflammatory conditions.

A person's risk for bursitis increases with advancing age. Repetitive motions and putting pressure on certain joints—such as during sports, manual labor, or playing a musical instrument—can increase the risk. Pressure on specific parts of your body, such as from kneeling, can also increase the risk of bursitis. Medical conditions like arthritis, gout, diabetes, and thyroid disease are also risk factors for bursitis. Occasionally, a sudden injury or infection can cause bursitis.

Activities that can lead to bursitis include:

  • Carpentry
  • Gardening and raking
  • Painting
  • Scrubbing
  • Shoveling
  • Sports—like tennis, golf, and baseball
  • Bad posture or a joint that's not well-positioned
  • Different leg lengths, bone spurs, or other musculoskeletal structural issues

Locations

Bursitis can affect any of the 150 bursae in the body, but certain locations are most commonly affected by this condition, including:

  • Shoulders (subacromial bursitis and periscapular bursitis)
  • Hips (iliopectineal or trochanteric bursitis)
  • Elbows (olecranon bursitis, sometimes called miner’s or barfly’s elbow)
  • Feet (name varies depending on location, commonly in the big toe, heel, or ball of the foot)
  • Knees (prepatellar bursitis or housemaid’s knee)
  • Buttocks (ischial bursitis or weaver’s bottom)

Symptoms

Bursitis can cause pain and discomfort in the affected joint, and oftentimes causes stabbing pain during movement or when the area is touched.

Other symptoms include:

  • Limited range of motion
  • Swelling
  • Redness, warmth, fever, and chills, if there is an infection

What is Arthritis?

Arthritis encompasses more than 100 diseases. The chief symptom is usually joint pain. It typically causes inflammation in more than one joint in the body, resulting in swelling, stiffness, pain, and a limited range of motion that worsens over time.

The different types of arthritis have different causes.

Rheumatoid Arthritis

RA is an autoimmune disease, in which the immune system attacks healthy cells in the body. RA mainly attacks the joints, usually many at once. It commonly affects joints in the hands, wrists, and knees. With RA, the lining of the joint becomes inflamed, causing damage to joint tissue, which can lead to chronic pain, deformity, and limitations in motion.

RA symptoms include joint pain, swelling, stiffness, fatigue, and low-grade fever. RA can also affect other tissues throughout the body and cause problems in organs such as the lungs, heart, and eyes.

Osteoarthritis

OA is the most common form of arthritis, most often seen in adults over 65 years of age. Because of its association with age, it is often referred to as degenerative joint disease or “wear and tear” arthritis. It occurs most frequently in the hands, hips, and knees.

With OA, the cartilage within a joint begins to break down and the underlying bone begins to change. OA can cause pain, stiffness, and swelling. In some cases, it causes reduced function and disability.

How Arthritis and Bursitis are Similar

Arthritis and bursitis are similar in various ways. The conditions have many overlapping symptoms and affect the same locations in the body—which sometimes makes it difficult to differentiate them.

Symptoms

Both conditions can cause:

  • Pain and aching in joints
  • Stiffness
  • Swelling
  • Redness
  • Tenderness to touch

Locations

The conditions also affect similar locations, including:

  • Shoulders
  • Knees
  • Wrists
  • Hips

They also both have the potential to affect other areas.

How Arthritis and Bursitis are Different

The key difference between the two conditions is the exact location of the inflammation. In arthritis, it is in the joint, whereas bursitis is in the bursae. Arthritis and bursitis are also different in pathology, onset, and how long they last.

Locations

While it is true that arthritis and bursitis can affect the same joints, when it comes down to the most common joints affected, there is some difference. Arthritis is most common in the knees, hips, and small joints, whereas bursitis is most common in the shoulders, hips, elbows, and knees.

Onset

Bursitis can come on suddenly and is usually an acute condition. On the other hand, arthritis is typically a gradual, progressive disease (with few exceptions, such as septic arthritis, a rapidly progressive infection).

Length of Condition

Arthritis joint damage is often permanent. Bursitis is a short-term irritation that doesn't create lasting damage unless physical stress persists in the area.

How Arthritis and Bursitis are Diagnosed

Bursitis is usually diagnosed with a physical examination. If you have another bursitis flare-up or signs of an infection, your provider may order:

  • X-rays to rule out other conditions, such as a fracture
  • Ultrasound or MRI to examine the joint
  • A blood test to look for evidence of an infection
  • A sample of fluid from the bursa, to identify cells or infectious organisms

For a diagnosis of arthritis, your healthcare provider will take a medical history and do a physical exam to find the effect of the pain on your ability to function and the cause of your pain. You may have x-rays or other imaging procedures, such as a CT scan or MRI to examine the extent of joint damage.

A Word From Verywell

In order to get these conditions, arthritis or bursitis, under control, it is best to get medical attention sooner than later. Diagnosis and treatment will make for a quick recovery in bursitis and a slower progression of arthritis.

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5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Arthritis Types. Updated February 20, 2019.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Rheumatoid Arthritis. Updated July 27, 2020.

  4. Cibrián Uhalte E, Wilkinson JM, Southam L, Zeggini E. Pathways to understanding the genomic aetiology of osteoarthritis. Hum Mol Genet. 2017;26(R2):R193-R201. doi:10.1093/hmg/ddx302

  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Osteoarthritis (OA). Updated July 27, 2020.